The Good: Moments of deepening the antagonist, Moments of effect
The Bad: Erratic special effects, Under-developed characters, Bland story
The Basics: More a reimagining of Sleeping Beauty than a film that truly explores Maleficent in a compelling and deep way, Maleficent goes for cheap laughs and big special effects sequences at the expense of character depth.
Considering how Disney movies – even the live-action ones – take years to make, it is odd to suggest that any one of them might have been rushed to theatrical release. On the story front, it is difficult to call any film based upon fairy tales that are hundreds of years old “rushed.” But, the longer Maleficent went on, the more the film felt under-developed, as it was failing to capitalize on its full potential. I refer not only to the story, which attempts to make the villain from Sleeping Beauty into a protagonist and a well-rounded character, but the effects as well. Intentional or not, the disproportionately large heads on the fairies Flittle, Knotgrass, and Thistlewit early in the film look ridiculous and create an erratic quality for the film’s effects which rob it of even perfection on that front.
Almost every actor will say that playing the villain is more fun than playing the hero. Angelina Jolie, who plays Maleficent for almost the entire film, has had plenty of experience playing antagonists, deuteragonists, and complicated, morally-ambiguous protagonists. So, the challenge for Jolie in Maleficent is for her to embody the villain in a way that humanizes and rounds out the antagonist of the Disney classic Sleeping Beauty (reviewed here!). It is a challenge the script does not give her much wiggle room to try to realize. Maleficent could have been rendered as a tragic figure in Maleficent, a defender betrayed by the one she trusted, but instead the film strips away its potential depth in favor of capitalizing on Jolie’s ability to play characters powerful and cold.
As a child, the fairy Maleficent, lives in the forest beyond the moor where the humans live. She encounters Stefan, a boy thief who is enamored with her and with whom she grows (though she sees him only occasionally). On his sixteenth birthday, Stefan kisses Maleficent and claims that it is true love’s kiss. But when the human forces of King Henry try to invade the magical forest, Maleficent raises an army of magical beings to defend the forest. Maleficent mortally wounds Henry and the king charges his potential successors to kill Maleficent with the offer that the one who succeeds in killing her will ascend to rule the kingdom following his death. Stefan, now an ambitious knight, poisons Maleficent and thinking better of killing her cuts off her wings to diminish her of her power as a fairy.
Saving a crow from death at the hands of humans, Diaval becomes Maleficent’s familiar. After Stefan ascends to be king and had a daughter, Aurora, Maleficent and Diaval crash the girl’s introduction to the kingdom. There, Maleficent curses the baby with a prophecy that she will prick her finger on her sixteenth birthday and fall into a sleep that can only be broken (after the king begs Maleficent for some mercy) by true love’s kiss. With Stefan paranoid and desperate, he sends Aurora to live with the three pixies while waging war on the moor and its magical inhabitants. As Aurora grows, Maleficent both torments her and the pixies and saves the girl’s life on numerous occasions (both from falling to her death off a cliff and from invading humans who work to penetrate the forest). But, as Aurora’s sixteenth birthday nears, the threat of the curse looms for both Stefan and the emotionally-conflicted Maleficent.
Maleficent fails largely because it does not succeed in making the title character into either a better villain or a misunderstood heroine. Maleficent’s willingness to help Aurora could have been a compelling character twist if this reimagined version of Sleeping Beauty actually had more punch (and willingness to truly reimagine the story). If Maleficent bonded with Aurora sufficiently that her curse on the young princess actually bore emotional consequences for her, the film might have come closer to succeeding. Sadly, Maleficent does not manage to be quite that clever. It treads near that when Aurora meets Maleficent and Diaval and believes that the fallen fairy is her fairy godmother. Alas, though, Maleficent strays back into the safe zone that makes Maleficent an over-reacting antagonist. After only two incidents, one of which is a pretty basic night of play, Maleficent tries to revoke her curse, but by that point, the character is more bland than complicated.
Stefan is actually recharacterized in an interesting way. He is driven pretty much insane by his daughter being kept in exile and living with the threat that Maleficent represents nearby. Unfortunately, he is not a particularly smart antagonist; for one who recalls Maleficent’s weakness to iron, one might think he would do more than simply hide the spinning wheels. Stefan could have easily waited until Aurora was fifteen, confiscated all of the spinning wheels and melted down the metal on them.
Aurora is played with surprising blandness by Elle Fanning. Capitalizing more on her childish looks and her ability to open her eyes wide, Fanning gives a monolithic performance as Aurora. The best that might be said of her in Maleficent is that she interacts with the virtual elements well.
As for Angelina Jolie, her performance seems more erratic than subtle. If Maleficent has a true change of heart over the curse, all she had to do was keep Aurora from spinning wheels until after her sixteenth birthday. Jolie could easily have sold Maleficent as a character smart-enough to realize that. Jolie sells the protective nature of Maleficent with her strong bearing and ability to emote with a steely gaze of resolve. The character’s vengeful nature is presented generically; Jolie does not reveal added depth or ability in playing Maleficent. In fact, when reacting to Brenton Thwaites’s Diaval, there are moments when Jolie actually breaks.
In the end, Maleficent feels underdeveloped. It is rushed in many places and fails to find its footing as either a reimagining of the classic tale or simple the story from a slightly different angle. In treading more toward the latter, Maleficent becomes a more generic live-action, special effects-driven fairy tale with erratic performances than a clever, worthwhile, or compelling film.
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© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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